Discrimination in Public Accommodations

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against certain protected groups in businesses and places that are considered "public accommodations." The definition of a "public accommodation" may vary depending upon the law at issue (i.e. federal or state), and the type of discrimination involved (i.e. race discrimination or disability discrimination). Generally speaking, it may help to think of public accommodations as most (but not all) businesses or buildings that are open to (or offer services to) the general public. More specifically, the definition of a "public accommodation" can be broken down into two types of businesses / facilities:

  • Government-owned/operated facilities, services, and buildings
  • Privately-owned/operated businesses, services, and buildings

Government-owned/operated facilities and services

Government-owned facilities include courthouses, jails, hospitals, parks, and other places owned and operated by federal, state and local government. Government-operated services, programs, or activities provided by federal, state, or local governments include transportation systems and government benefits programs (such as welfare assistance).

Privately-owned/operated businesses and buildings

Privately-owned businesses and facilities that offer certain goods or services to the public - including food, lodging, gasoline, and entertainment -are considered public accommodations for purposes of federal and state anti-discrimination laws. For purposes of disability discrimination, the definition of a "public accommodation" is even more broad, encompassing most businesses that are open to the public (regardless of type).

Laws Prohibiting Discrimination in Public Accommodations: Race, Color, Religion, and National Origin

Federal law prohibits public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. If you think that you have been discriminated against in using such a facility, you may file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, or with the United States attorney in your area. You may also file suit in the U.S. district court.

There are also state laws that broadly prohibit discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, and national origin in places of public accommodation. To determine whether your state has such a law, you should contact your state or local human rights agency, or your state attorney general's office.

Laws Prohibiting Discrimination in Public Accommodations and Disability Discrimination

At the federal level, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in a wide range of places of public accommodation, including facilities that offer lodging, food, entertainment, sales or rental services, health care and other professional services, or recreation. State and local governments must eliminate any eligibility criteria for participation in programs, activities, and services that screen out or tend to screen out persons with disabilities, unless the government can establish that the requirements are necessary for the provision of the service, program, or activity. In addition, public facilities must ensure that individuals with disabilities are not excluded from services, programs, or activities because buildings are inaccessible.

There are also state laws that broadly prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation. To determine whether your state has such a law, you should contact your state or local human rights agency or your state attorney general's office.

Talk to an Attorney about Your Discrimination Claim

Have you been denied services in a commercial facility based on your religion, national origin, or other protected characteristic? Have you been confined to inferior areas in buildings or businesses because of your disability? If you are concerned about your civil rights in a place of public accommodation, then talk to an attorney knowledgeable about discrimination claims. An attorney can help you navigate the complexity of civil rights law.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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